Monster-truck rallies and Monster Jam are some of the most testosterone-laden events ever devised by man. And by "man" I mean men—there's something aggressively masculine about the smell of gasoline, the sight of these immense vehicles, the sound of their revving engines echoing around the area. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of monster truck drivers are men, but then there's Nicole Johnson.
Essentially the Nicki Minaj of monster trucks, Johnson is one of the most successful drivers out there; her list of accomplishments that includes being the first woman in Monster Jam history to ever land a backflip and the 2013 Crash Madness of the Year award. She's won countless races in her time as a monster truck driver, including the first show she ever competed in.
Johnson has been involved in motorsports for more than 20 years. Her husband served as a spotter at rock-crawling events, where trucks have to navigate extremely rough terrain, and eventually Nicole started driving a rock-crawling vehicle, winning the Women's National Championships her first time out. She began competing and touring the country in 2007, and about three years later, at an auto show in Las Vegas, she met Dennis Anderson, creator of the mega-popular Gravedigger truck. Anderson recognized her from rock-crawling competitions and introduced her to the Monster Jam bosses. Within two weeks she was driving Gravedigger in North Carolina. Johnson won her first Monster Jam race in 2011 with only two days of practice, and was subsequently offered a job as a driver.
We talked to her to find out about life as a driver, sexism in the industry, and what it feels like to do a backflip in a giant car that looks like Scooby Doo.
VICE: Your kids must think you're the coolest mom in the world, right?
Nicole Johnson: You know what's funny? They have been around me being in such extreme conditions their entire life. One of the first times that I got behind the wheel [was in 2004], when I had a six-year-old and a four-year-old. And my husband's been competing since they were two and a newborn, so they have seen it their entire lives. In my rock crawler, I have rolled in every direction possible, from side to side, forward and back, and it even once burst into flames. By the time I jumped into Monster Jam, they were like, "OK, cool. Just another day at the office with Mom!"
Do your kids worry about your safety?
Oh, of course. It's everyone's big concern, from drivers to crew members to all of the other staff that puts the show together. It's everyone's number-one priority, and if it wasn't everyone's number-one priority, none of us would be able to do this job. What Monster Jam is extremely good at is safety, and that's the only way I would have it. I would only do it if I could still come back and be a mom at the end of the weekend.
What are the safety precautions you take?
We've got seats similar to what they use in NASCAR. I've got a five-point harness that actually ratchets into place, so my seatbelt is not coming loose. And we have a head and neck restraint system. We also have safety measures that allow us to remotely kill the motor from outside the vehicle with a remote-control radio. So the crew can actually kill the motor on a monster truck should they see fit. You can't even move the truck without additional safety precautions. I'm really confident with it.
I did want to ask you about that Crash Madness Crash of the Year Award. What happened?
We were at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, and there were at least 60,000 or 70,000 eyeballs on it, live, and we were racing. I had turned this corner where there was a big jump. At the edge of the jump, it was a little in my blind spot, and I was too close to it. The right side of my truck decided it was going to drive right over that jump, and I just kind of lost my visibility a little bit and flipped off the track. It sent my truck sideways through the air for about half the distance of a football field, and then I wiped out at the other end, into a big obstacle that I was supposed to drive around. It destroyed that truck! And then I got out, not a scratch, nothing wrong with me, no pain, not a bruise on me. So I was fine, but the truck was mess. And the crowd loved it.
For more on monster trucks, watch our doc 'Monster Trucks... On Acid!':
Is there any physical sensation you could compare to jumping? Does it feel like a roller coaster? Or is it totally unique?
I've never really thought of it like a roller coaster, but I guess it does feel like that a little bit. You know it's very jarring, there's nothing that's meant to be comfortable about the ride, because if it was, it wouldn't look very entertaining. Our trucks are massive. We have so much weight—three-quarters of the weight of the vehicle is below the shocks, below the suspension, meaning when we should have bumps, the trucks wobble around like crazy, which looks super entertaining to the fans. It's all over the place.
Now jumping huge, like big air, is really hard to describe. There's no sensation like it. I'm so fixed and tight in my truck that I don't ever feel like I'm falling, like you would if the floor dropped out from under you, like how it sometimes feels in an elevator or something. I've never experienced anything like it. It's unlike anything else I could compare it to. It's like being in a cartoon. [ Laughs.] That's all I could say, we've got crazy bright colors, I'm driving a 12-foot dog, and I'm flying through the air. I feel like a superhero in a cartoon.
Speaking of cartoons, I know that your truck is shaped like Scooby-Doo, but if you could pick any cartoon for your truck, what would it be?
Wonder Woman! It would be Wonder Woman. It would be an invisible truck, and I would fly through the air like—well she had an invisible plane, didn't she? I just don't know if her outfit would keep me safe from fire.
So do you have any particular favorite moves or jumps?
Well, I am fond of big air. I love getting really huge jumps. It's risky, though, because usually when you land you can break something in the truck, and then maybe you can't finish your run because now your truck is compromised. But I don't really care. It's so much fun. If you've ever watched motorcycles, when they fly through the air you'll hear them go [ makes noise similar to Rihanna's gunfire in "Bitch Better Have My Money"], which is the throttle. That's because we keep the wheels spinning at the same speed as we flow through the air. When you've lifted off of the gas, and just landed, all of your gears can break because now your truck is physically moving at a different speed than your tires are. What's so cool to me is the sensation of flying through the air, and you're so high, and you hear that bop-bop-bop, and you go, Oh I'm still in the air, bop-bop-bop, still in the air, bop-bop. And then you finally land.
What is it like to land a backflip?
If you've ever jumped on a trampoline and tried to do a little backflip and your whole world just sort of spins really fast—you know how even though you're the one moving, it feels like the world is moving really fast around you?
There are a lot more male drivers than female drivers. Do you feel any particular kind of closeness to your fellow female drivers? Do you stick together?
No, not really. A lot of the time we're dispersed amongst the shows. The first quarter of the year, pretty much January to March, is our big season. On any given weekend, you might have eight to 12 different Monster Jam shows going on simultaneously throughout the country. So with only something like eight female drivers, we get spread out because we're kind of a novelty. We don't always get to see each other. Often we don't see each other all year long. Of course we all want each other to do well because like it or not, we're all being judged as a group of females. When one of us performs well, it makes us all look better. But when I'm out there with the guys, I just feel like one of the guys.
I was watching a news report on drivers who are mothers, and someone described them as a "novelty draw." Do you consider yourself a novelty draw?
I don't know that I would necessarily consider myself that because, like I said, when I'm out there, I just feel like one of the dudes, like one of the guys. But I think that the perception from the fans is that. So when we have the parties where all of the trucks are on display, and all the drivers are posing for photos and signing autographs, I tend to have longer lines than some of the guys.
I feel like it's the perception of the fans, like, "Oh my gosh, there's a girl driver, I have to go see this for myself." I still have people that'll get in my line for autographs, and then come up to me and go, "Wait, you drive this thing? You're not the driver, right?" I hate to use the word model, but they'll be like "Are you just the model?" and I'm like, "No!"
So you do experience some sexism from fans.
I absolutely do. Not in a disrespectful way, just that when they notice that there's a female they go, "Oh, I didn't expect that." Or they'll be super excited. When young girls, teenage girls, and their moms realize that I'm a girl, maybe after the show, during post-show autographs, that's when they're like, "Oh my gosh, I want to be you," or "I didn't realize that there was a girl out there, you're my hero." I hear it all the time, and it's amazing. It's amazing that I suddenly gave them something that they can look up to, someone that they can root for. Picture a 14-year-old girl who's never been to Monster Jam, and she's there with her family—maybe she's just there for her little brother to have fun, maybe she's rolling her eyes a little. And then she sees a girl driver and all of a sudden, I'm her hero. Please don't interpret that as me saying that I'm better than anybody, though.
No, I'm not at all!
I'm just aware of that role. It's kind of like a stewardship. You know, once you become aware of something like that you go, OK, this is important . If I can affect these kids lives positively, give them something to strive for, or just for them to say, "Hey, I'm a girl and I can still do it," then I want to try to take it seriously.
I know you have a pretty big presence on social media, with something like 130,000 likes on Facebook—
Oh, it's 133,000 honey. Let's get it straight. [Laughs.]
Do you feel like you live a double life? And does the celebrity stuff ever cross over into your daily life?
I think I need a telephone booth to come with me, because I feel like Clark Kent. He's just a normal guy, walking around, and then you put this suit on and go in front of the fans and they go crazy! But then you can just change your clothes and blend right in. I don't really know that it's real celebrity. Of course everybody knows who you are when you're in the environment of a show. It's fun. When real fans remember everything, and really know who you are, that feels so neat.
You can go see Nicole Johnson compete at the Path of Destruction summer show in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on June 13, and in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on June 20. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.